Brussels' History: 12 Events That Shaped The City

Ayla Sileghem

From a medieval settlement in the swamps of the Senne to the beating heart of the European Union, Brussels most certainly has an interesting history. Here are the most important events that have shaped the city we know today.

Brussels’ Towers

From swamp to city

Brussels humbly started out as a small settlement by the river Senne, supposedly in the 10th century. It is said that the name Brussels originates from the word Broekzele, which translates to ‘settlement in the swamp.’

The founding date of the city is uncertain. Some historians state the existence of Brussels began as early as the 7th century, while others claim the city started out as a fort built by Charles of Lorraine around 979.

What’s certain is that Brussels originates from three spots around the Senne: a valley and two nearby hills. Brussels was first mentioned in the 11th century as a portus, a river port.

The Grand Place, Brussels

A Grand Place

The Grand Place was referred to in 1147 as the ‘lower market.’ Situated close to the port on the Senne and along an important road, the marketplace did well as a bustling center for trade. But the buildings that make the Grand Place famous today were built (and rebuilt) much later.

The Town Hall came first, in the 15th century. With its beautiful flamboyant gothic design, 96 meter-high tower (315 feet) and detailed statues, it evidently must have been a costly project. It took about 18 years to complete the structure, and it has been renovated many times throughout history. This is why the building is not entirely symmetrical; if you look straight at the Town Hall, you’ll see that the tower doesn’t stand precisely in the middle.

The entire Grand Place was rebuilt after it was bombed by the army of Louis XIV in 1695. The bombardment happened during the Nine Years’ War, and although it did not influence the outcome of the war, it signaled the beginning of an age in which fortified city walls lost their significance. On the Grand Place, only the front of the Town Hall and some stone walls were left standing among the rubble. The rebuilding of Brussels happened quickly, however, and the marvelous results can still be seen today.

Three times a capital

Brussels received its ‘Town Rights’ in 1229, meaning it could govern itself independently as a city. These privileges were granted by the Duke of Brabant, Henry I. During this year, Brussels also received its first criminal law charter, also introduced by Henry I.

Besides being an independent municipality, Town Privileges also meant Brussels could have a marketplace, build city walls, collect fees for passage into the city, and have its own taxes.

This marks the beginning of Brussels as an actual city with its own governance. The city would continue to grow and prosper, later becoming the twin capital of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, the capital of Belgium and the heart of the European Union.

Black Tower in Brussels (Tour Noire)

Building the city walls

The first city walls were placed around Brussels in the 12th or 13th century. One of its towers, named the Black Tower, still stands at the Place Sainte-Catherine. Other remaining parts of the first wall can be seen at Rue des Alexiens and Boulevard de l’Empereur. These walls were well used in 1356, when Everard t’Serclaes sealed them to retake the city from a Flemish invasion. His monument is a popular attraction in the Grand Place.

When the city started to expand beyond the walls, a stronger fortification was placed between 1356 and 1383. These are the walls that gave the center of Brussels the (somewhat) pentagon shape it has today. Like the first walls, they had a typically medieval design. Both walls surrounded Brussels until the 16th century, when the first set was demolished. The outer walls and its gates would follow throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Manneken Pis

An unlikely mascot

In the year 1619, a stone statue named Manneken Pis got a bronze replacement, made by an artist named Hiëronymus Duquesnoy. The statue that proudly urinates in Brussels today is a replica made in the 1960s, and the original can be seen in the Maison du Roi at the Grand Place.

Manneken Pis was first known as Petit Julien, or little Julien, and was part of a public fountain. There are many stories surrounding the origins of the statue. The most probable explanation is that the first statue was constructed as a homage to the tanners close by; in the middle ages the urine of small children was used to process leather.

Laken (Belgium), the Royal Castle (architect:Charles de Wailly – 1782-1784)

A Palace for royals and emperors

The Royal Palace of Laeken was constructed in the 18th Century as a summer residence for Archduchess Maria Christina of Austria, the governor of the Southern Netherlands, and her husband. Back then, the palace was named Kasteel van Schoonenberg (which more or less translates to ‘the castle of the beautiful mountain’).

A century later, it became the temporary residence of emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais. The couple stayed in Laeken in 1804. Napoleon later bought the palace and gave it to Joséphine in 1811. By buying it, he prevented its demolition, although some parts of it were already destroyed, such as its Chinese Pavilion.

Scène de la révolution belge, Constantinus Fidelio Coene

Belgium’s Independence

In 1830 a revolution took place in Brussels, one that would send a shockwave throughout the country. Before that, Belgium had been a part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, known as the ‘Southern Netherlands.’

The reasons for the rebellion against Willem I were varied. First, he made Dutch the national language. This was not only unacceptable for Wallonia, the French-speaking upper class in Flanders resisted as well. Secondly, the Catholic south greatly distrusted the Protestants. To make matters worse, the economy did badly in the region and the harvest that year had been poor, spreading further unrest.

On the 25th of August, a riot took place in Brussels, joined by the audience of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. The patriotic opera performance that inspired the audience was, interestingly enough, held in honor of Willem I’s birthday.

Despite efforts by Willem I, such as sending his two sons to appease the riot, the Belgian revolution was successful. A later military campaign by Willem was stopped with French support. In October, a declaration of independence was made, that became effective in February. Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, Queen Victoria’s uncle, became the first king of the Belgians in 1831.

replica van de locomotief L’Eléphant uit 1834 in het Spoorwegmuseum de Mijlpaal te Mechelen, België

Taking the train to Brussels

One of the first railways on the European continent crossed the distance between Brussels and Mechelen. Because of its independence from the Netherlands, Belgium no longer had access to the Dutch waterways. This, however, opened the possibility to build railroads, a notion that had been dismissed by Willem I earlier.

The announcement frightened some Belgians. Farmers worried that the passing vehicles would turn milk sour, and the newspaper Le Moniteur Belge reassured the crowds that they could breathe normally in trains, despite the high speed.

The first railroad was built as a trial for this new exciting kind of transportation. On a sunny day in May 1835, three locomotives, named the Arrow, the Elephant and Stephenson took 900 guests, including king Leopold I, from Brussels to Mechelen.

Another construction worth mentioning still runs through the center of Brussels, connecting the main railroads: the North-South connection. It runs partially underground, like in Brussels’ Central station. It was built in 1952, but the plans existed much earlier in history. The connection was proposed as a part of another great construction in Brussels, the covering of the Senne.

Construction to Cover the Senne

Covering the river

Brussels started out as a river port, but times change, and so did the city. In the 19th century it was decided that the river needed to be covered. Not only had the Senne become so polluted it was a health hazard, the river also overflowed its bedding each year, reaching the houses of the working class.

From 1867 to 1871, a part of the river was overarched with a brick construction, and the newly gained terrain was quickly covered with new boulevards and buildings. The rest of the Senne would follow from 1931 to 1955. The river disappeared from the city center entirely, along with a big part in Anderlecht and Laken.

The World Wars

The World Wars did not leave Brussels unaffected, and many remainders can be seen throughout the capital. At the feet of the Congress Column near Brussels station, between two lion statues, five unknown soldiers lay buried. They symbolize the many unknown soldiers that died during the war. The beacon in front of the Congress Column burns out of memory for all the victims of the First World War. At the Palace of Justice, there is a monument for the 32,000 foot soldiers that died during that war.

Two lesser-known monuments for the First World War are the stained glass windows of the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon, and the stones in the Sonian Forest. In the Church, some of the stained glass windows depict events from the First World War; and in the Sonian Forest, a collection of menhir-like stones commemorate 11 foresters that died during the war as well.

During the second World War, Brussels underwent Nazi occupation. Nevertheless, the city remained hostile towards Germany. The ULB (Université Libre de Bruxelles) was closed after it refused to hire people from pro-German Flemish circles. The mayor of Brussels refused to distribute the Star of David badges, even though he did agree to make a register of Jewish residents. The city was liberated by the Welsh Guards in 1944. Many commemorations of the Second World War can be found in Brussels today. There are also many streets named after important members of the Allied forces, such as Franklin Roosevelt and Bernard Montgomery.

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Expo ‘58

The Brussels World’s Fair, held in 1958, was the first large-scale World’s Fair after the second World War. For those who might not know, a World’s Fair is an exhibition held by a host country, with a duration varying between three weeks and six months, exhibiting the culture and achievements of various countries, itself included.

The World’s Fair in Belgium, also known as Expo ’58, was the 11th World’s Fair held by Belgium. It most famously showcased the Atomium, a giant construction shaped like a microscopic iron crystal. The exhibition site is now an attraction with miniatures, called Mini-Europe.

Place du Luxembourg Panorama

The European Union

The idea of cooperation across European borders came after the second World War. The European Coal and Steel Community, established in 1952, was so successful it was quickly followed by the European Communities. After signing the Maastricht treaty in 1992, the European Union was born.

Brussels was not the only candidate to harbor the new European Institutions. Strasbourg, Liège, The Hague and Saarbrücken were all proposed as hosts. Eventually, Brussels was chosen for various reasons. It is a historical buffer state between France and Germany, it’s located on the border between the Latin and Germanic cultures, and it lies between other important cities and areas such as London, Paris, the major metropolitan region in Germany and the Dutch cities.

The European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the European Council are all located in the European Quarter in Brussels. This is the area between three parks: Brussels Park, Leopold Park and Cinquantenaire Park.

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